News & Politics

Peter Bergen Made a Career Hunting Osama bin Laden . . . Now What?

The author penned four books about the world’s most wanted man, and his future works may stay in familiar territory.

Bergen noticed al-Qaeda long before most. Photograph by David S. Holloway/Getty Images.

No journalist has been more closely associated with the life, and now the death, of Osama bin Laden than Peter Bergen. The author of four books on al-Qaeda and its elusive founder, Bergen was also the producer of bin Laden’s first television interview, for CNN in 1997.

Bergen’s latest contribution to the bin Laden chronicles is Manhunt: The Ten Year Search for bin Laden From 9/11 to Abbottabad, which he began after bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALs last year. Bergen has said that, in a sense, he’s been preparing to write this book ever since he and bin Laden first met in a mud hut in Afghanistan. It’s a mix of old reporting and new, including an exclusive February tour of bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound. Bergen was the only journalist allowed inside before the Pakistani government razed the building.

What you won’t find in the account is much sense of how Bergen felt standing in the room where the man he had hunted met his end, with one bullet to the head and another to the chest.

Instead, there’s an emotional detachment, on the page and in person, that’s as conspicuous as the absence of the terrorist mastermind himself. Bergen says he was neither depressed nor overjoyed when bin Laden died; the man is simply gone.

But now the most wanted man in the world is wanted no more, leaving the man who has spent much of his career writing about bin Laden in an unsettling place.

“Is it like being a Sovietologist in 1989?” Bergen joked when we met for coffee in Washington this spring as he wrapped up his book tour. “A bit. Al-Qaeda will linger, but I’m moving on.”

Bergen was heading out the next day for a hard-earned vacation in Germany. Halfway through his quick ten-month reporting and writing of Manhunt, he and his wife, journalist Tresha Mabile, welcomed their first child, Pierre Timothy Bergen.

The author has no plans to leap into new journalistic terrain. He’s still keen on writing about the war in Afghanistan, US-Pakistan relations, the broader Middle East conflict: “I’m interested in the fact that President Obama grew up in a Muslim country. Since the Carter administration, the really big issues all come out of the Muslim world.”

This article appears in the August 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.